Lady Olivia Bird is the family matriarch, ruling over husband Julian, sons John and Mark, daughter Sheena, and their estate, Silverue. Lady Bird is domineering, cruel, insipid and self-centered. She is focused more on her garden than on any aspect of family life. She has a near-oedipal relationship with John, who has just returned home after being treated for a nervous breakdown, and practically ignores everyone else. Sheena is in love with a young man named Rupert; Mark is still young enough to spend most of his day with his lonely governess, Miss Parker.
Eliza, a family friend, visits Silverue just as John returns home. Eliza has long loved Julian, although it’s not clear whether their relationship ever went beyond the platonic. Eliza is a keen observer of the family dynamics:
Eliza said, “Dear, but it’s lovely for me,” and she went away leaving Julian to everything that was more important than she was. To dressing flies for his mad son. To waiting for his faithless, cruel wife. To his Life in which he had no smallest part. Well, so long as one knew where one was, nothing hurt one. Only unexpected wounds and defeats. (p. 39)
Whoa! Molly Keane does dysfunctional Anglo-Irish families in large country houses very, very well. As Caroline Blackwood wrote in the afterword to my Virago Modern Classics edition:
Molly Keane “really knows” the shallow, sheltered world of Anglo-Irish gentry which has provided her with so much excellent material. She knows the facade of the beautiful romantic houses that her characters inhabit, and because she knows that facade so well she can make us see it.
Full House unfolds with a series of character studies, entire chapters focused on Lady Bird, Julian, Sheena, John, and sad little Miss Parker, who is waging a fruitless war against her facial hair:
Nor, when one is Miss Parker’s age, does one expect great results from any depilatory. However largely advertised. However highly paid for. Used with whatever trembling of the soul and carefulness. Still one does not hope too much. One does not dare. (p. 90)
The children all despise their mother, and Olivia is oblivious to it. Julian is ineffectual, enabling his wife’s behavior. John is simply taking one day at a time, pretending life is completely back to normal. Sheena hopes to escape through marriage, but the relationship is threatened by advice from a not-so-kindly relation. Only Olivia can help her, but has to be able to see beyond her own needs. In the end, Eliza makes it all turn out right for both Sheena and John, even though she knows there will be no reward for her in doing so.
This is my fourth Molly Keane novel, and I can now see themes common to her novels: the Anglo-Irish gentry in decline, horrible mothers, weak men, and biting satire. Altogether, they make for a very good read indeed.